Waste plants cause stink
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Waste plants cause stink

State-backed waste-to-energy plants emit pollutants, critics say

Choke on that: Haze pollution blankets inner Chiang Rai province. This photo was taken from a building in Muang district on March 27.
Choke on that: Haze pollution blankets inner Chiang Rai province. This photo was taken from a building in Muang district on March 27.

Rather than protecting the environment and people from garbage pollution, the government plans to tackle overflowing waste by promoting small localised waste-to-energy projects.

This could bring about even greater environmental adversity and haze pollution, environmentalists say.

Due to the emission of hazardous pollutants and greenhouse gases from waste-to-energy projects, environmental experts and academics are urging the government to reconsider its strategy. They say it is impractical to create a sustainable waste management system by prioritising energy recovery alone.

Here, the Bangkok Post examines how these waste-to-energy projects can cause environmental degradation and haze pollution now choking Thailand and neighbouring countries.

Waste power fuels climate crisis

Garbage pollution, especially from plastic waste, stemming from growing piles of accumulated untreated waste, is a major environmental concern which the government has been trying to solve for years.

These mountains of trash are the result of poor waste management and lack of proper disposal facilities, which allow authorities to recycle and appropriately dispose of only 30–40% of municipal solid waste, leaving the rest to be dumped or burned without proper segregation and recycling in landfills and illegal dumping sites across the country.

Recycling cost: These humble plastic bottles will be transformed into monks' robes, though it may come at some cost to clean air.

As part of the government's effort to clear accumulated garbage and enhance waste management efficiency, 34 waste-to-energy projects are scheduled to begin commercial operation by 2026, which will boost the capacity of local administrative agencies to incinerate leftover waste up to 16,799 tonnes per day, while also producing a total of 324 megawatts of electricity.

The official line claims the waste-to-energy plants will be the perfect solution for enhancing waste disposal capacity, while providing additional benefits in climate mitigation by supplying new sources of renewable energy from waste incineration. However, environmental activists, and locals around the sites of the proposed projects, view the development with concern.

Chariya Senpong, Energy Transition Campaign Team Leader at Greenpeace Thailand, opposes the expansion of waste-to-energy projects, warning that waste-to-energy projects add to pollution.

"The pollution from waste incineration, especially plastic waste, is toxic to both the environment and people's health, as it contains hazardous pollutants, such as PM2.5, dioxin nitrous oxide, mercury, and heavy metals," Ms Chariya said.

"Since plastic is made from fossil fuels, the burning of plastic waste also releases large amounts of greenhouse gases and contributes the warming of the earth's climate, causing more devastating impacts from climate change."

Waste-to-energy plants must be regulated and scrutinised at every stage from planning to operating under strict environmental protection laws to ensure the projects have minimal effects on the environment, she said.

However, the government has done the opposite and set the environmental standard for waste-to-energy projects to the lowest minimum by exempting the projects from the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process and excluding them from the building code under city zoning law. This is to encourage private sector investment in the projects.

As a result of this policy, the number of waste-to-energy plants in Thailand has increased from 11 in 2014 to 25 in 2022 and will increase further to 34 in the next three years once nine new waste-to-energy plants start operation.

"This situation shows the government has no regard for the environmental consequences of waste-to-energy projects," she said.

According to the Ministry of Interior's Department of Local Administration (DLA), 79 waste-to-energy projects are planned nationwide, which will have a combined power generation capacity up to 619 megawatts and be capable of incinerating up to 33,006 tonnes of waste per day.

Of them, 22 projects are still at the consideration process, and 11 projects have been operating since 2019 as part of a waste-to-energy investment promotion scheme under the Quick Win Project.

Meanwhile, nine new waste-to-energy projects and 12 new refuse-derived fuel (RDF) plants under the DLA's plan will be ready for operation within the next three years, after the national energy policy board approved an agreement to start buying power from the plants in 2025.

Pinsak Suraswadi, director-general of the Pollution Control Department (PCD) under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said authorities are not just focused on incineration at waste-to-energy plants, but considering how the national action plan can manage municipal solid waste and plastic waste.

Many stages are involved from manufacturers to consumers and finally waste collection and management, he said.

Mr Pinsak insisted "waste-to-energy projects are crucial for addressing Thailand's chronic waste problem". They are needed to manage the 9.9 million tonnes of leftover untreated waste which has gathered nationwide.

While environmental protection standards were lower for waste-to-energy projects, he was confident environmental regulations in place were sturdy enough to ensure the projects are safe for the public and the environment.

Wrong focus

Commenting on the government's waste management strategy, Sujitra Vassanadumrongdee, senior researcher at the Environmental Research Institute, Chulalongkorn University, said the government has adopted the wrong focus by prioritising waste disposal rather than emphasising prevention of waste generation.

That's the opposite to the correct order under the so-called waste management hierarchy, she said.

Ms Sujitra said the hierarchy is a conceptual framework designed to rank waste management decisions running from the most to least environmentally preferred strategies.

"Although energy recovery from waste is one aspect within the hierarchy, it is ranked at the bottom of the inverted pyramid. According to the appropriate order, the prevention of waste generation at source should be the first strategy to prioritise, as it is the most environmentally preferable aspect of waste management," she said.

"This could be achieved by encouraging the manufacturing sector to reduce the use of virgin raw materials in their products or redesigning their products to promote reuse to avoid waste generation at the first place.

"Then we should focus on processing materials for recycling. Finally, after retrieving all reusable or recyclable materials, the leftover waste should be segregated to be incinerated for energy or disposed at a landfill."

Plastic waste is a huge part of Thailand's waste problem, she said.

According to the PCD's figures on plastic waste situation in 2021, the amount of plastic waste increased by almost 22% from the previous year, while about 28% of plastic waste was improperly disposed of in landfills.

Meanwhile, the total amount of leftover garbage nationwide as of the end of last year had risen to 9.91 million tonnes, about 1.6 million tonnes up from the previous record of 7.5 million tonnes in 2021.

The increase of accumulated waste coincides with an increase in municipal solid waste generation. The figures also show the amount of household waste generation in 2022 rose slightly from the previous year's record of 24.98 million tonnes, to about 25.7 million tonnes, or about 2.8%.

Ms Sujitra said the government should reduce the use of virgin plastic as much as possible, especially single-use plastic, and incorporate the principle of extended producer responsibility (EPR) into waste management regulations.

"We cannot just rely on voluntary measures to encourage the sustainable management of plastic. There should be EPR law to make plastic manufacturers adhere to proper management of plastic at every part of the plastic waste lifecycle," she added.

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